The latest data on Covid-19 in schools shows a small increase in positivity rates amongst close contacts tested.

Speaking in the Dáil today, Minister for Education Norma Foley said public health advice showed that outbreaks remained very low in schools.

She said the school environment was not the source of increased rates of detection and transmissibility amongst young people.

A report by the Health Service Executive shows that 4,062 tests were carried out in 183 schools, more than double that of the previous week.

The number of detected cases was 110 representing a positivity rate of 2.7%.

The figure is higher than the previous week, when 1,842 tests were carried out across 108 schools with 44 cases detected. The positivity rate then was 2.4%.

These latest tests were conducted at 120 primary, 52 post-primary and 11 special education schools last week.

The latest data also shows 119 cases were detected in childcare facilities. That is a positivity rate of 9.6% - down from 11.3% last week but significantly higher than schools or the wider community.

1,236 tests were conducted across 71 childcare facilities.

That is double the number of tests that was carried out the previous week with 62 cases detected.

The report shows 1,140 confirmed cases in children aged 0-18 last week.

The breakdown is as follows: 343 confirmed cases in the 0-4 age group representing 0.1% of that age group; 487 confirmed cases in the 5-12 age group; 310 confirmed cases in the 13-18 age group.

The figures represent 0.1% of those aged 5-18.

Addressing an Oireachtas Committee, Minister Foley referred to reports by chair of the Irish Epidemiological Modelling Advisory Group Professor Philip Nolan showing the increased rates among young people were not being detected or transmitted within the school environment.

Ms Foley said it shows the very strong mitigation measures in place in schools and particularly the work being done on the ground by staff and students in abiding by these measures.

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Sinn Féin's Rose Conway Walsh questioned how there could be absolute certainty that young people were not being infected within the school environment.

Ms Conway Walsh said it seemed too much of a coincidence that rising numbers coincided with school returns.

The minister said the adjudication and judgement on these statistics must be left to the public health experts.

She said the figures were not produced by her but by the experts on the ground.

Minister Foley said public health teams take a very rigorous approach when they go into schools and have extended the level of testing for Covid-19.

She added that from the outset the decision had been taken to let public health experts take the lead regarding the measures required within the schools in dealing with Covid-19.

The minister went on to quote public health experts, saying an outbreak of Covid-19 refers to two cases or more but transmissibility and detection within schools was very low.

She repeated that levels were higher in the wider community.

The minister said an enormous amount of work has been carried out to ensure that schools reopen on a cautious and phased basis, and she said there was an enormous debt of gratitude owed to all of society for supporting and facilitating the measures in place.

Minister Foley said there was still a responsibility on all of us to continue social distancing and wearing masks. She urged people not to congregate at school gates or to organise play dates.

"If we all hold steady and do what needs to be done then I'm confident there will be a full resumption of all schools after the Easter break."

Parents concerned over virus among children

Earlier a Cork-based GP said parents have been contacting her practice with concerns about their children and Covid-19.

Dr Nuala O'Connor said that, as of yet, her practice has not had any positive cases, but there has been an increase in other infections as a result of children mixing together.

Speaking on RTÉ's Today with Claire Byrne, she said as schools are a controlled environment, there is around a 3% chance of the virus spreading within schools, but it is the socialising before and after schools that is causing the increase of cases among children.

Dr O'Connor said public health teams have not found any increase in transmission in schools, compared to pre-Christmas levels, and the evidence internationally is that the virus tends to spread more rapidly from adult to adult than among children.

Mid-May before over 70s fully vaccinated - NPHET

Meanwhile, the National Public Health Emergency Team said it has "noted" that people aged 70 years and older will not all have received their first dose of Covid-19 vaccine until "after mid-April" and will not have got their second dose until "after mid-May". 

The issue is raised in the most recently published letter from Deputy Chief Medical Officer Dr Ronan Glynn to Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly. 

Dr Glynn said it highlighted the particular vulnerability of this group over the coming months. 

The Vaccination Task Force added that the completion dates of mid-April and mid-May for vaccination of those aged 70 and older remain unchanged.

On 11 February, Minister Donnelly said it would be mid-May before those aged 70 and older were fully vaccinated. 

In the NPHET letter of 11 March, Dr Glynn said there is also a concern about the positivity rate in serial testing in nursing homes, which is at 0.5%, as this is similar to what was seen at the end of the summer last year. 

The letter also advises the Government about the ongoing "profound" curtailment of capacity to deliver a range of scheduled and routine care for patients and the importance of increasing ICU capacity from 321 beds to 446 beds.

The latest vaccination figures from the HSE show that up to last Saturday, 190,635 people aged 70 and older had received a dose of Covid-19 vaccine.

There are an estimated 500,000 people in this Category 3 group.

Also 5,370 people at very high risk, who are in the Category 4 group, had received a vaccine.

Overall, by Saturday, 675,946 doses had been administered.

Of these, 492,106 were first doses and 183,840 were second doses.

Speaking on RTÉ's Morning Ireland, Mr Donnelly said an enhanced local public health response scheme will be launched this week and there will also be enhanced engagement with employers and third level facilities.

He also said that he has not had any conversation to suggest that all schools will not reopen after the Easter holidays as planned, but added that new variants of the disease will exploit any opportunity. 

Mr Donnelly said there has been a significant rise in outbreaks as a result of household and workplace transmission. 

Later, speaking on his way into a Cabinet meeting, Mr Donnelly said the vaccine programme is being ramped up and they are moving through certain cohorts who are being vaccinated.

He said that any dates on vaccinations are all conditional on the pharmaceutical companies delivering and the vaccine task force is looking at vaccination target dates all the time.

As of last Friday, a total of 668,529 Covid-19 vaccine doses had been administered, with 181,063 of these being second doses. 

Additional reporting Fergal Bowers, Teresa Mannion, PA